In withdrawing from the JCPOA,Washington may find itself facing the veryimpasse with Iran which the deal was designed to prevent. Maxwell Downman reports

There was global dismay as President Trump decided to withdraw from the Iran Nuclear Deal in May this year. The Iran Deal – the more common name for the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action signed by the United States, Iran, the United Kingdom, Russia, France, Germany, China and the EU – effectively relieved sanctions on Iran in exchange for verifiable limits on the country’s nuclear programme. Now, as the US piles the pressure on Iran, it is far from clear that this confrontational approach to renegotiating the Deal will have the desired effect, and will not, in fact, push Iran to the brink.

Since America’s withdrawal, two new sets of US sanctions are set to come into force. The first, which came into effect on August 7, include restrictions on Iran’s purchase of US currency, gold and other precious metals, and the Iranian sale of auto-parts and commercial passenger aircraft. The second, which comes into force on November 4, restricts the sale of oil and petrochemical products. While it is likely that major importers of oil such as Russia, China and Turkey will merely ignore US sanctions, others closer to the United States will seek exemptions.

Washington’s ‘maximum pressure policy’ intends to bring Tehran to the negotiating table to discuss a new Deal that encompasses issues such as Iran’s regional activities – including involvement in Syria, and support for Houthi rebels in Yemen and Hezbollah in Lebanon – and its ballistic missile programme. The US haspainted the Iran Deal as a black and white, zero-sum game of diplomacy, yet there are a number of reasons to be sceptical of this approach.

The US’s confrontational attitude risks emboldening Iranian hardliners

First, the United States has received lacklustre support for its ‘maximum pressure’ campaign, with its European allies uniquely unified in resisting American measures. In early August the US Ambassador to the United Kingdom urged Britain to rethink its support for the ‘flawed’ 2015 nuclear deal. In response, British Foreign Minister Alistair Burt said the US had ‘not got this right’, adding that ‘sometimes you need to take a stand against friends’.

On August 7 the EU Blocking Stature came into force, which is meant ‘to protect EU companies doing legitimate business with Iran from the impact of US extra-territorial sanctions’. However, its legal force is questionable as European firms will have to sue the US government, and many companies doing business with Iran will likely choose the US market over Iran. At the very least, even if European governments are unable to incentivise European companies doing business with Iran, they will not take efforts to plug the loopholes. New sanctions will likely be more ineffective without the support of international partners.

Secondly, in the long term, the US decision to reimpose sanctions could negatively affect Washington’s ability to use sanctions as an effective tool of diplomacy. US sanctions cannot be viewed in isolation and its decision will make foreign governments question whether acceding to US foreign policy demands will bring them any benefits.

This is already happening with Iran. After the latest round of US sanctions were implemented, President Trump announced his willingness to engage in talks with Tehran without preconditions. In response,Iran’s supreme leader has banned ‘any talks’ with the United States, stating that the US reneging on the Deal was evidence that Washington cannot be trusted. In a public address he stated that ‘with the issue of the nuclear negotiation, I made a mistake in permitting our foreign minister to speak with them. It was a loss for us’.

UNVEILING: Iranian Defence Minister Amir Hatami with Iran’s new Fateh-e Mobin short-range ballistic missile
UNVEILING: Iranian Defence Minister Amir Hatami with Iran’s new Fateh-e Mobin short-range ballistic missile

Finally, the US’s confrontational attitude risks emboldening Iranian hardliners. Since the re-imposition of sanctions there has been a sharp fall in the value of the rial, prompting angry protests from thousands of Iranians at the steep rise in food prices, unemployment and state corruption.

Yet rather than bring Iran to the negotiating table, so far this has hardened its position and led to increased criticisms of President Hassan Rouhani, the pragmatic cleric who championed the 2015 deal. In a change of tune, Rouhani announced on Iranian TV: ‘We will not let the enemy bring us to our knees.’Since May Iran has felt emboldened regionally and has said its ballistic missile programme is non-negotiable, as it unveiled a new generation of ‘Fateh Mobin’ short-range ballistic missiles.

It is possible that Iran will change its negotiating position. Indeed, the country did come to the negotiating table for the Iran Nuclear Deal and it has historically adjustedits hardline negotiating stance in instances such as the Iran-Iraq War. As Iran’s economy continues to falter and unrest spreads,its situation will become increasingly untenable. Tehran needs to be given face-saving measures and a way out, none which are currently being offered.

For example, while shutting down Iran’s entire ballistic missile programme is nigh impossible, curbing and restricting it may be possible. Already Iran chooses not to develop missiles with a range over 2,000 km.

Iran has historically adjusted its hardline negotiating stance in instances such as the Iran-Iraq War

History has shown that sanctions are an incredibly unwieldy beast. While theyare credited with bringing Iran to the negotiating table for the Deal, the turning point here was active European support for the sanctions’ regime. Shared support for a process based on dialogue and mutual compromise made the Deal possible.

For now, prospects to save the Deal seem remote. Rather than bring Iran to the negotiating table, President Trump’s action has led Tehran to reject the possibility of talks. If the Iranians decide that the economic benefits of staying in the Deal are not worth it, theyare largely expected to walk away, raising the distinct possibility of themrestarting their nuclear weapons programme.

Herein lies the greatest risk of the US strategy. Rather than takingthe Iranians to the brink and pulling them back, Trump’s confrontational attitude may simply push them over the edge. Iran’s clerical class and political leadership may decide that the United States can never be a credible negotiating partner and, despite others’ best intentions, they can do little to protect Iran. Such is how the United States may face once again the dilemma the Iran Deal was designed to avoid: an advanced Iranian nuclear programme with no international system to prevent it.

Maxwell Downman is a political researcher with the British American Security Information Council (BASIC), London’s independent disarmament and arms control think-tank. He focuses on nuclear disarmament, non-proliferation and East Asian international security

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